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1-2. Sylvester Stallone, F.I.S.T. (1978); First Blood (1982)
Sylvester Stallone is the actor’s equivalent of a verbally clumsy, incurious politician who presents himself as the salt of the earth, in contrast to those slick snake-oil salesman who prove they can’t be trusted with their ability to string three words together. When he plays Rocky, the fact that he’s inarticulate is supposed to prove he has finer feelings than he could possibly express with words; as Rambo, he doesn’t talk much because he’s a man of action, not words. It took Stallone a little while to get all this straight, though: In F.I.S.T., his first movie after Rocky made him a star, he plays a Hoffa-like labor leader who’s meant to build the country’s most powerful union out of nothing and hold it together, all with the power of his stirring oratory. The only problem was that, as Pauline Kael wrote of his performance, Stallone “couldn’t speak three sentences without getting a logjam in his sinuses, and snorting.” Four years later, when he first played John Rambo in First Blood, Stallone had a better handle on what his fans did and didn’t want to see him do, but he still thought he’d better do a little acting at the end of the picture, and deliver a speech explaining where Rambo’s head was. Leonard Maltin once offered a prize to anyone who could actually figure out most of what he was saying.
3. Orson Welles, Macbeth (1948)
Orson Welles had a powerful voice, but it had its limitations. For instance, anyone who’s seen The Lady From Shanghai knows Welles wasn’t put on Earth to delight audiences with his melodic Irish brogue. Apparently he wasn’t meant to sound like Sean Connery, either. Welles’ film version of Macbeth with himself in the title role, shot fast and cheap for Republic Pictures, suffers from two major problems with the sound: Welles was obliged to record all the dialogue before shooting the movie, and he decided he and the other actors (including Jeanette Nolan, who plays Lady Macbeth, and who nobody is going to ever mistake for Kelly Macdonald) should attempt Scottish accents. After the bosses at Republic got a load of the results, they made Welles go back to the recording studio and cut a whole new dialogue track with the actors—those who could still be rounded up, anyway—speaking in their normal voices. But in 1980, a restored version was completed that uses the original dialogue track, allowing film scholars to luxuriate in the sound of a great artist in the throes of a really, really bad idea.
4. Ewen Bremner, Trainspotting (1996)
Upon its release in 1996, Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting set a new benchmark for indecipherability. The tale of heroin-addicted Edinburghers living in grim council flats is rife with Scottish accents that make Groundskeeper Willie sound as clarion as Troy McClure. There was Robert Carlyle as the murderous, mumbly psychopath Begbie, and Ewan McGregor’s star-making turn as Renton, but when it comes to sheer inscrutability, there may be no match for Ewen Bremner as Spud, the group’s hapless simpleton. In one of the film’s more memorable scenes, Spud, anxious about an upcoming job interview (mostly because he might actually get the job), takes some amphetamines to ensure he’ll botch the Q&A portion and can stay on the dole, having supposedly legitimately tried to acquire gainful employment. The scheme works perfectly, turning the already marble-mouthed Spud into an incoherent fiend.
5. Heath Ledger, Brokeback Mountain (2005)
A soft-spoken, closeted cowboy with a bleeding heart and a tongue of lead, Ennis Del Mar (as played by Heath Ledger) is easy to fall in love with, but difficult to understand. Ennis’ quiet nature is his defining characteristic, and under Ang Lee’s soft, calm direction, Ledger’s vocals emphasize the cowboy’s fear of engaging with others. At the same time, this is still a movie, and it’s hard to connect to a character when his words can’t be heard. Ledger does remarkable work with the character’s rural Wyoming accent—maybe too good a job, because his slurred-together words and dull consonants can make it hard to decipher his dialogue. Make sure the volume is up and the subtitles are on for his final line of the film, a mumbled “Jack, I swear” that comes out sounding like a series of sad grunts.
6. Vincent D’Onofrio, Men In Black (1997)
Should Vincent D’Onofrio’s commitment to his craft ever come into question, his preparations to play the role of Men In Black’s giant-insect-in-farmer’s-clothing, Edgar, should act as sufficient evidence in the affirmative. After trying unsuccessfully to get into the skin of a bug through nature documentaries, the actor instead sought ways to make it look like the big roach was inside him, developing a constricted walk through the use of knee braces and forming a strangled, halting speech pattern that, according to the actor, is a hybrid impression of George C. Scott and John Huston. D’Onofrio’s line readings sell the idea that the character’s squishy outer shell is rapidly stiffening and decaying, to the point that he nearly swallows important plot points in his croaky vocal tics and audible twitches. In terms of storytelling, it obscures the roots of Men In Black’s interstellar conflict; from an acting perspective, it’s a bold, bizarre choice that inspires amateur YouTube mimics a decade and a half after the film’s release. Maybe they’re just committed to deciphering the words on the tip of Edgar’s rotting tongue.
7. Marlon Brando, Apocalypse Now (1979)
Marlon Brando’s mumbling is so famous and well-worn that it has become a trope itself, poked and prodded in movies and TV, a staple of comedy-club impressionists. The most famous example remains The Godfather, where Brando stuffed cotton in his cheeks to create the distinctive Don Corleone look (and sound), but Brando’s trademark, self-serious gibbering is most pronounced in Apocalypse Now. Brando plays the power-mad, fevered Kurtz like a slurring poet-prince, droning through half-distinguishable passages of T.S. Eliot.
8. Mickey Rourke, Johnny Handsome (1989)
In the Brando school of Method masculinity, the more an actor can express himself physically, the less clear he needs to make himself verbally. And there’s no more prize graduate of the Brando school than Mickey Rourke, whose rascally charms in early films like Diner gave way to the boozy and/or steroidal magnetism of later appearances in Barfly, Angel Heart, Iron Man 2, and The Wrestler. But what happens when Rourke applies his usual mush-mouthed technique to a character who’s supposed to be verbally impaired? Walter Hill’s underrated 1989 noir Johnny Handsome provides the answer, casting Rourke as a freakish-looking professional crook who gets set up in a botched jewel heist, receives facial reconstructive surgery in prison, and emerges to take revenge on the people who wronged him. Plastered in Elephant Man makeup, Rourke speaks like his nose is squeezed in a vice, but he makes himself understood enough that his inner wounds mirror those on the surface.
9. Linda Manz, Days Of Heaven (1978)
When it comes to voiceover, too many filmmakers make the classic mistake of telling rather than showing; they use the device as an easy way to explain character motives, or to add some pre-fab folksy charm to their movie. Days Of Heaven, Terrence Malick’s sepia-toned tale of scheming migrant farmers in the Texas panhandle, is that rare case of a film that uses voiceover to complicate, rather than simplify. The narrator in this case is 12-year-old Abby, played with world-weary precociousness by Linda Manz. Her enigmatic narration—“Sometimes I feel very old, like my whole life is over. Like I’m not around no more”—appears sporadically throughout the film, never explaining what’s going on, yet somehow imbuing it all with another layer of meaning. Manz’s seemingly incongruous Noo Yawk accent, such a stark contrast to Nestor Almendros and Haskell Wexler’s magnificent cinematography, only adds to the mystery: Who is this girl who looks like an angel but talks like Jimmy Cagney?
10. Giovanni Ribisi, Contraband (2012)
How many times has some variation on the rhetorical question, “What the hell was Giovanni Ribisi’s deal in that movie?” passed through moviegoers’ lips? Though his career started with relatively inconspicuous performances as a teenager and up-and-coming star—the 1999 mental-retardation rom-com The Other Sister was the only early sign of trouble—Ribisi has grown into a character actor who specializes in scuzzy eccentrics. While Ribisi’s shtick is well hidden in freewheeling movies like Masked And Anonymous and The Rum Diary, it becomes absurdly (and sometimes pleasurably) distracting in the context of a generic thriller like the Halle Berry laugher Perfect Stranger or the Mark Wahlberg vehicle Contraband. In the latter, Ribisi straps on a deeply suspect Cajun accent as a New Orleans tough guy who threatens to harm Wahlberg and his family if Wahlberg doesn’t smuggle a cocaine shipment. Ribisi’s lines sound pushed through a filter that gunks up whenever his character gets angry—and since he’s angry much of the time, it’s best just to assume he means harm.
11. Benicio Del Toro, Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas (1998)
“We had two bags of grass, 75 pellets of mescaline, five sheets of high-powered blotter acid, a saltshaker half-full of cocaine, and a whole galaxy of multi-colored uppers, downers, screamers, laughers… Also, a quart of tequila, a quart of rum, a case of beer, a pint of raw ether, and two dozen amyls.” This is how Johnny Depp’s Hunter S. Thompson surrogate takes inventory in Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, Terry Gilliam’s suitably frenetic adaptation of Thompson’s novel about his drug-addled search for the American Dream. Del Toro plays the writer’s insane lawyer, and between these two characters and that supply of hallucinogens, the two actors slur their speech as if their mouths are numb and they’re perpetually on the verge of passing out. But while Depp’s character (who also narrates) remains a hyper-verbal man of words, Del Toro sinks into a stupor so extreme that his buddy seems like the only person, onscreen or off-, who’s capable of understanding him. And that’s perhaps just as it should be.
12. Martin Short, Father Of The Bride (1991)
In the 1991 remake of Father Of The Bride, Steve Martin confidently tells his daughter and wife that he knows best how to handle and negotiate with their wedding planner, until he comes face-to-face with Martin Short’s flamboyant Franck (not “Frank”) Eggelhoffer. Short speaks in a rapid-fire guttural accent that’s German-inspired but also could possibly lay claim to any other European country. (Possibly more than one.) The cake is the “ceck,” weddings are “waddings,” and very is “vary.” Martin’s faith in his ability to keep the wedding under budget goes out the window when he can’t keep up with what Short is saying. To add insult to injury, daughter Kimberly Williams and wife Diane Keaton seem to understand Short’s accent, which leaves Martin feeling more left out than before, especially when he realizes he’s being made fun of, but he isn’t sure how.
13. Michael Keaton, Much Ado About Nothing (1994)
If you’re a movie actor with little stage experience and no experience playing Shakespeare, and Kenneth Branagh has somehow talked you into taking a role in one of his all-star Shakespeare movies, you have a couple of options. You can agree to have most of your lines cut and just stand there modeling your leather pants: the Keanu Reeves strategy. Or, as Michael Keaton does in the clownish role of the pompous constable Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing, you can really throw yourself into it, hissing and grunting and ignoring the meter as you squeeze the words out of a face that looks to be contorted in agony from the effort of forming syllables. Keaton isn’t unintelligible in the sense that there’s hope of making out what he’s saying—though he has his moments there—so much as unintelligible in the sense that he sounds as if he has no idea what the words he’s saying mean. Still, that isn’t about to keep him from saying them, even if no one around him really wants to listen. Which is actually kind of perfect for the role, actually.
14. Jennifer Jason Leigh, Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle (1994)
Alan Rudolph’s Dorothy Parker biopic Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle was produced by Robert Altman and came out a couple of years before Jennifer Jason Leigh appeared in Altman’s Kansas City. Leigh was no picnic to listen to in Kansas City, but at least she was offscreen some of the time. In Mrs. Parker And The Vicious Circle, she’s the whole show, delivering her lines in a grating, stilted voice while often speaking in a rushed mumble. (Viewers have to lean closer to the screen to hear the words they can’t make out anyway.) She sounds as if she’s doing an overly meticulous imitation, but why? It’s not as if many people in the audience would have the faintest idea what the real Dorothy Parker sounded like. Maybe it’s best to just be grateful for small favors: Though Leigh denies it, rumors persist that after the film was finished, she was called back to re-record much of her dialogue to render it more intelligible. So this could be the improved version.
15. Helena Bonham Carter, Sweeney Todd (2007)
Few musical-theater aficionados would dispute Steven Sondheim’s lyrical acumen, but Sweeney Todd fans who’ve only seen Tim Burton’s film version might wonder why so many of the lines delivered by human-pie merchant Mrs. Lovett consist of undifferentiated vowel sounds strung end-to-end. With judicious editing and post-production audio sweetening, screen musicals can be kind to untrained singers, but no amount of massaging can pull the consonants from Helena Bonham Carter’s throat; she reduces the rapid-fire libretto of “Worst Pies In London” to an unsavory hash.
16. Eric Roberts, Runaway Train (1986)
Eric Roberts was widely considered a hot property in the mid-’80s, and even with his penchant for overacting, he might have been able to hang onto leading-man status in Hollywood for a while longer if the rubber faces he used to pull hadn’t done something funny to his voice. He started getting seriously mush-mouthed in Star 80 and The Pope Of Greenwich Village, but it was still more or less possible to figure out what he was trying to say, even if there was no credible explanation for how he chose to say it. But in the aptly titled Runaway Train, he uses a sloppy, exaggerated Southern accent that turns his every utterance into molasses. To fully appreciate how ungrounded in any kind of reality this performance is, it helps to know that Roberts, who sounds as if he’d never met a real Southerner in his life, was born in Biloxi, Mississippi.
17. Vin Diesel, Pitch Black (2000)
With a tendency to breathe through his barely opened mouth like a burly ventriloquist, Vin Diesel can be tricky to make out, and never more so than in David Twohy’s cult science-fiction flick Pitch Black. In his first turn as the smirking space convict Riddick, Diesel’s deep baritone tends to get a bit lost in the film’s audio mix. As a result, many of Diesel’s smirking wisecracks get muddied, as does his tone-setting voiceover. Thankfully, Diesel’s dialogue seems to have been cleaned up considerably for the film’s Blu-ray release, making whispered lines like “But what route? What route?” somewhat more audible.
18. Bob Dylan, Masked And Anonymous (2003)
Bob Dylan has a lot going for him, but he isn’t exactly renowned for his silver-tongued enunciation. Beyond his records, Dylan brings his caricature-ready marble-mouthed mumbling to Larry Charles’ 2003 feature Masked And Anonymous. Starring, co-written, and scored by Dylan, Masked And Anonymous was “The Bob Dylan Movie” before Todd Haynes’ experimental I’m Not There nipped the distinction. Charles makes pretty good use of Dylan, keeping him by and large tight-lipped and letting his music (and the film’s rounded-out stunt cast, which includes Val Kilmer, John Goodman, Jeff Bridges, Penélope Cruz, and Ed Harris) do the talking. But when Dylan does open his mouth, that slurred, distinctly Dylan-esque cadence is on full display.
19. Lee Marvin, Paint Your Wagon (1969)
The Simpsons already made the joke about how Paint Your Wagon sanitized the then-emerging grittiness of American Westerns by casting tough-as-nails stars Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin (who picked this project over Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch) in a Technicolor song-and-dance musical. But what they missed was how hilarious it is listening to hear Marvin actually sing dialogue muffled by his character’s formidable muttonchops. Marvin’s signature number, “Wand’rin’ Star,” has become something of a lonely-heart classic. But compared to some of the film’s other performances—like Harve Presnell’s “They Call The Wind Maria”—Marvin’s singing voice is flat, croaky, and in places utterly inaudible.
20. Brad Pitt, Snatch (2000)
In spite of his Hollywood looks, Brad Pitt has never shied away from committing strange, unrecognizable, and sometimes downright incomprehensible performances to celluloid. While his performance in True Romance almost necessitates closed captioning, that’s nothing compared with his work in Guy Ritchie’s Snatch. Pitt plays Mickey O’Neil, a bareboxing Irish Gypsy (or “pikey,” as he’s unaffectionately termed throughout the film by other characters). Mickey, like so many of his wandering tribe, employs a dialect somewhere between English and Irish tongues to produce a semi-comprehensible hybrid. It’s pretty amazing to see Pitt turn in a performance in which 90 percent of his dialogue is unintelligible, but it serves a purpose: Mickey’s use of language keeps his true motivations in the dark, which allows him and his fellow travelers to maintain an edge against the various English lowlifes who come across their path. While the gangsters consistently underestimate Mickey and his kin, O’Neil employs his indiscernible language in order to formulate a plan that only reveals itself in the final minutes of the film. While the plot of Snatch can often be as muddled as Mickey’s speech, Pitt’s performance is an enjoyable slice of clarity in an overcooked crime noir, hitting with the power of his character’s signature knockout punch.